October 21, 2017 – February 18, 2018
Arguably, the finest exhibitions are ones that expand our worldview, or at least prod us into greater understanding of artists’ subject matter, style, and societal influences. But it surprised me when first walking through Dress Matters: Clothing as Metaphor that something as seemingly mundane as clothing could engender thoughts on a number of social topics. Clothing itself is obviously functional, necessary, and often beautiful. This exhibition, however, mines the many ways clothing can be a highly charged vehicle of expression as well. Paintings, mixed media works, installations, videos, and photographs are on view in this splendidly curated show, in which fifty artists exploit clothing as metaphorical device. Sometimes the connections are loose and open to interpretation; sometimes the artist’s decision to let clothing speak is explicit.
Julie Sasse, Tucson Museum of Art’s chief curator and curator of modern, contemporary, and Latin American art, says she has been contemplating a clothing-centric show for years. Dress Matters draws largely from TMA’s permanent collection, the Santa Fe-based Tia Collection, and private sources in an effort to zero in on clothing’s symbolic and political nature, which is sometimes overlooked when viewing masterworks and contemporary pieces. In addition, Sasse organized the works around seven engaging themes: clothing in relation to religion, society, desire, power, transformation, identity, and absence. The show includes such notables as Nick Cave, Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie, Robert Longo, Graciela Iturbide, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Christian Boltanski, Karen LaMonte, and Andy Warhol. Of course, it’s thrilling to see these artists grouped together in this context, but I gravitated toward the regional artists in the show, curious about their particular approach to imbuing clothing with unexpected meaning.
Referencing her Hispanic heritage and rich family stories, Phoenix-based Annie Lopez constructs life-size dresses made of cyanotype prints on tamale paper. The Liberation of Glycerine (2016) is 1950s-style blue dress bearing documents and photos from the life of Dr. Eric Jungermann, a Holocaust refugee and chemist. The dress celebrates a life while explicitly revealing identity. Tucson-based multimedia artist Sama Alshaibi is represented by a video segment from her long-term project “Silsila,” or “link.” Of Palestinian and Iraqi descent, Alshaibi’s concerns include climate change, migration, and religious and ethnic identity, which she investigates through haunting footage of women in flowing white robes in ethereal, watery surroundings. Clothing that speaks to religion, among other things, is the basis for the sculptural works of Phoenix-based Angela Ellsworth. Overtly sardonic and with an underlying message of female power, Ellsworth’s “Seer Bonnets” series derives from the pioneer bonnets worn by Mormon plural wives, although Ellsworth—referencing her own Mormon ancestry—creates the bonnets from thousands of pearl-tipped corsage pins. On view is the 60-inch-high Seer Bonnet XIX (Flora Ann) (2011), named for one of Joseph Smith’s wives. The pins create a pattern on the bonnet, and the bonnet’s straps are exquisitely long and sharp. Other standout pieces by artists with ties to the West include Oregon-based multidisciplinary artist Wendy Red Star’s series of highly detailed photographic tableaux in which each of four photos is titled after a season. The artist poses herself in traditional Crow attire, sitting expressionless against painted mountain backdrops while surrounded by animal cutouts and other fakery. Clothing is but one of several details that speak volumes about appropriation of indigenous culture.
Thanks partly to the scope and size of the show, I came away with a number of new waypoints into viewing works that incorporate or suggest a clothed human figure. Dress and clothing has the power to telegraph nuanced messages not only about gender and age, but also ethnicity, personality, social status, means of transformation, emotional states, and political climates. Also speaking well for the show is the fact that a number of well-known regional artists hold their own alongside international artists—all ably illuminating the theme. Dress Matters threads the needle (pardon the pun) in its aims to be both intellectually invigorating and attractive.